Chaplains as Religious Ministry Professionals

Chaplains have at least two distinct professional identities. They are unarmed members of the profession of arms, but they are also “religious ministry professionals” in accordance with their endorsing bodies’ understanding of that role.

All Army chaplains come in to the service as fully qualified religious ministry professionals as their endorsers understand that term. Endorsing agencies submit a DD Form 2088 (“Statement of Ecclesiastical Endorsement”) for each candidate certifying their professional competence. There is a lot of administrative data on a DD Form 2088, but the heart of the form is a one sentence statement:

“I HEREBY VERIFY THE ABOVE PROSPECTIVE CANDIDATE TO BE PROFESSIONALLY QUALIFIED AS A RELIGIOUS MINISTRY PROFESSIONAL FOR THE MILITARY CHAPLAINCY.”

Some religious leaders are hesitant to use the label “professional” to describe their religious identity. Baptist pastor John Piper, for example, has written a book entitled, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. Objection to the “professional” label may be rooted in the belief that it connotes a mercenary approach to religious leadership, but payment for services is not the essence of being a professional. Some may think that the word “professional” implies that secular leadership, caring and organizational models have priority over Biblical principles or that the requisite tasks can somehow be performed apart from God’s help. Neither is necessarily the case. A faith group’s expert body of knowledge may not include secular sources at all, and its standards of behavior may explicitly reject worldly approaches to leadership.

Despite the reservations, Chaplains are indeed “religious ministry professionals” as that phrase is commonly understood. In general, professions:

  • Create their own specialized bodies of expert knowledge
  • Are responsible for training and certifying members of the profession
  • Have a shared understanding of mission and identity, and an ideal of service
  • Have a professional ethic to which the members are mutually accountable
  • Are recognized by the public as members of a unique profession

Endorsed chaplains certainly fit this description. By certifying their candidates as “religious ministry professionals,” endorsers affirm that their chaplains are experts in the application of the faith group’s body of religious knowledge. Endorsement verifies that chaplains are fully trained and competent to provide the religious ministry that the church provides. Endorsing bodies are also responsible for holding chaplains accountable to their own ethical standards in the practice of ministry.

It should be clear, however, that there is no single profession called “clergy” to which all religious leaders belong. Members of the clergy differ from physicians and lawyers in this regard. Each faith group is responsible for its own body of specialized knowledge and its own understanding of the nature of religious leadership. Baptists, Catholics, Mormons and Muslims will all define the expert body of knowledge differently. The tasks they perform will be different (even if they sometimes look similar) and the standards by which they measure the performance of their professional duties will be different.

The religious expertise which chaplains apply in the performance of their religious duties derives solely from their endorsing bodies. The government is not legally competent to make judgments on matters matters theological, ecclesiastical or sacramental. Endorsing bodies, not the government, hold chaplains accountable to ecclesiastical standards of professional performance and conduct. The DD Form 2088 is the sole piece of evidence that the government accepts certifying the chaplain’s competence in religious ministry.

In some instances, the implications of this fact are obvious. An Assembly of God supervisory chaplain will probably recognize that he doesn’t have much to say to a Catholic priest about how to conduct Mass or to a rabbi about how to conduct the Sabbath service. In some cases, however, the situation gets a little fuzzier. Can a Baptist brigade chaplain make supervisory judgments about a Presbyterian battalion chaplain’s preaching? If both chaplains are on the same worship team, then the supervisory chaplain certainly has a say in how the worship service will be conducted. But even here, supervisory chaplains need to respect the professional competence and judgment of chaplains who have been endorsed by an agency other than their own. I often have to remember that my religious ministry judgments are not the same those of the as other members of my team, who have all been certified by their endorsers as competent within their own traditions.

But while all chaplains performs their religious ministry in accordance with the standards established by their endorsing bodies, there is also a sense in which Army chaplains also participate in a common profession. One might call it a “sub-profession” within the Army profession. One expert has called it a “jurisdiction” within the Army profession. Whatever you call it, every Army chaplain is a member of a body with a common identity, ethos, mission and body of expert knowledge. Being an Army chaplain goes beyond just being a member of the clergy who wears the uniform and who knows how to survive on the battlefield. There is something unique about the chaplaincy itself. More on that later.

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